Number of women in prison on the rise | NevadaAppeal.com

Number of women in prison on the rise

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Avonne Hardaway reads a Bible at the Silver Springs Conservation Camp Friday morning. She is among the growing population of women inmates in Nevada and across the country.

In the year ending June 30, 2004, the number of people behind bars in the United States rose 1.8 percent. During that same year, Nevada’s inmate population increased 8.4 percent.

That’s not a big surprise given Nevada has been the nation’s fastest growing state for a decade.

The surprise is the increase in the number of women going to prison in Nevada.

Wendy Naro, of JFA Associates, the consultants who analyze trends and make projections for the Nevada Department of Corrections, said the female inmate population rose 16.3 percent during that same year and has just about doubled over the past decade.

She said new commitments increased more than 29 percent from 2003 to 2004.

Fritz Schlottman, deputy director for operations for the department, said the state’s three female institutions are near capacity.

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Schlottman said projections for male prisoners have been relatively accurate. The male population was projected to reach about 10,565 by October and finished the month at 10,625 – a half-percent off.

But the women’s population, projected at 865, hit 915. While that’s not a large numerical difference, it’s a much bigger percentage error.

“They’re here, they’re coming and we’ve got to figure out what to do with them,” he said.

Naro said Nevada isn’t alone. Nearly every state is seeing more rapid growth in the female criminal population than male. But national numbers aren’t nearly as dramatic as Nevada’s. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of women in state and federal prisons increased 4 percent in 2004.

Naro said those increases aren’t simply because society is producing more criminal women. She said many states including Nevada adopted sweeping changes to their sentencing laws in the late 1990s. “Truth-in-sentencing” laws not only restructured penalties for men but, according to Naro, brought a lot more gender equality to the process.

“What it did was it eliminated some sentencing disparities between men and women,” she said. “Women, prior to that, would often get lesser sentences than men. When they put truth-in-sentencing in place, a lot of that disparity was eliminated and women got longer sentences than they had been getting for similar crimes.”

Schlottman, however, said the types and severity of crimes committed by women have also changed over the past decade.

“There are more violent and sex offenders coming in of both genders,” he said. “There’s also an interesting dynamic coming out of Clark County,” he said. “When you start seeing female gang members, that’s something we have no experience with whatsoever and we’re starting to see those. They’re becoming much more like the men. Gangs are now a family business and women are kind of new, but starting to show up.”

In the Nevada system, about 60 percent of male inmates are in for crimes involving sex or violence. For women, that total is 42 percent – 3.5 percent for sex crimes compared to 20 percent of men.

A decade ago, 23 percent of women inmates were in for crimes of sex and violence.

“It’s becoming a harder population,” said Schlottman.

He and Naro agreed, however, females still tend to be much less violent offenders than men. The majority of female inmates are in for drug and property crimes – usually involving stealing to pay for drugs. Those types of offenses account for 58 percent of Nevada’s women inmates compared to just one-third of men.

Schlottman and Naro said they are expecting the increase in both male and female inmates to begin tapering off.

“We always get a bump in a recession,” he said. “But we think as the economy picks up steam and more people get employed, there’s less incentive to take the risk of committing a crime.”

The people being sentenced now, he said, are part of the “lag” – those who committed some crime months ago when the economy was still struggling but are just now being sentenced.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.